Tonight, hot pork balloon Donald Trump will participate in a televised debate with nine Republican presidential candidates. He is pretending to campaign for president, and the political press has agreed to pretend to believe him for a little while. It’s cynical and farcical and boring and stupid and insulting to ... [counts on fingers] ... yep, pretty much everyone except Donald Trump.

Here’s the New York Times, working like hell to glean some larger political meaning from Trump’s “support”—which, mind you, exists solely in the form of opinion polls about an election to be held more than a year from now—and finding “the first post-policy candidate”:

What some have called “Trumpism” is founded not on a specific agenda, like the bullet-point Contract With America in 1994 that led to the Republican takeover of the House.

Rather, it is built on boiling grass-roots anger over the ineffectiveness and scripted talking points of conventional politicians on matters like illegal immigration and America’s global power.

“Everybody in the establishment misunderstands the game he’s playing,” said Newt Gingrich, the author of the Contract With America and onetime House speaker who was himself a Republican presidential candidate in 2012. “His opponents want to talk about policies. He’s saying if you don’t have a leader capable of cutting through the baloney, all this policy stuff is an excuse for inaction.”

“What some have called ‘Trumpism.’” Some. Wonder who they are. If you listen closely you can hear poor David Brooks pausing Peggy Sue Got Married to whip up a treatise about the unplumbed electoral power of Post-Policy Uncles.

The Times is far from the only outlet doing this, of course. Google “Donald Trump frontrunner” to marvel at how many by-reputation-and-presentation savvy and gimlet-eyed reporters and pundits have gotten in on the hustle, selling the garbage notion that Trump’s polling numbers indicate a meaningful advantage in pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination—that he is the “frontrunner” in any real sense at all, that the poll results can be read as anything other than an indictment of the practice of polling voters a year before the election. Each and every one of them knows better than to believe that. Each and every one is bullshitting their readers.

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In order to pretend that Trump is at risk of doing harm to his presidential prospects in tonight’s debate, you must pretend that he has any, and that he genuinely intends to have any, and that his recklessness and ridiculousness are not the precise and only reasons why he is in position to say things, in a televised presidential debate, that smart and thoughtful writers who know better may then pretend have done damage to a candidacy that is itself a figment of various imaginations. And if you’re the sort of person who’s up for this, it’s near-certain that you’ll do all of this only after assuming an equally phony position of amused agnosticism about Trump’s actual articulated policy positions, so that you may feign a kind of detached admiration for his willingness to say unpresidential things without examining their actual content.

That’s a lot of work! The alternative—covering his “candidacy” only as a gross professional famous person’s branding ploy, covering his participation in tonight’s debate only as a ratings-grab by a profoundly cynical news network, and covering the poll numbers as indicators of how little anyone cares about the presidential election from the shade of a beach umbrella—has the disadvantage of stripping away the borrowed gravity of implied potential consequences for American government, and the advantage of being honest. It’s an alternative the politics press rejects every four years, with a predictability that makes you want to punt your own head into the ocean.

A version of this deeply phony shit has happened in every Republican nomination cycle since Ronald Reagan’s presidency: Some race-baiting nativist or apocalyptic culture warrior (depending on which way the wind is blowing out on the lunatic fringe) runs up superficially good-looking early numbers and scores a debate appearance. Rick Santorum or Tom Tancredo or Michele Bachmann or Alan Keyes or Pat Buchanan or David Duke or Pat Robertson or Herman Cain are buoyed meaninglessly by an off-year poll question about a far-away television character’s entertainment value, and by the campaign press’s determination to treat these poll results as gauges of anything other than how few fucks anybody gives about presidential candidates a year before they’ll be asked to cast a vote, and the press pretends to take them seriously for a few months, and then everybody moves on as if it never happened.

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And so it is with Donald Trump—except that, unlike many of the sweaty careerists and movement maniacs typically occupying this role, Trump knows the score full well. Whatever else he may or may not be—a lifelong fraud, an inheritance baby in possession of zero traits worth taking seriously, a living refutation of the entire concept of meritocracy—he is not a sucker. He’s not campaigning for a new job; he’s doing his current one, which involves enjoying the lifestyle of a billionaire and the rapt attention due a celebrity business magnate despite a résumé of actual accomplishments and distinctions that consists mainly of renting his name to other people.

The point, here, is not to poke a hole in Donald Trump. (That would be impossible, anyway: the man is a hole, where marks dump their money and attention.) What he’s doing is what he does; what any shithead would do if wholly unearned lifelong wealth and privilege not only removed all the stakes from his own behavior but left him entirely unable to conceive of what stakes might be. He’s gratifying himself. He’s playing the heel. He’s flaunting the ease with which he can invite himself to the center of attention, the readiness with which the media will shame itself for the sake of extracting some copy from his clown show. Why not do it? What can it cost him? His reputation? Being a heedless, big-talking showman is his reputation. His political clout? That’s safe for as long as he remains rich.

The closest this nominal campaign comes to an actual goal is its capacity to enhance the value of Donald Trump’s personal brand. He’ll stick with it as long as he can do it on his terms, and then he’ll leave, after he has raised funds and soaked attention and extracted uncomfortable handshakes from people he delights in repulsing, but before actual formal results threaten to make an actual formal loser of him. In order for this to work, he needs the press to treat him like an actual presidential candidate with an actual campaign and an actual chance of making a difference in actual voting now, so that he’ll have gotten what he wants from this venture well before the primaries and can cash out before the tide changes. He needs the press to pretend that his lead in opinion polls juiced by the volume of their own faux-breathless coverage reflects more than a feedback loop of their own creation.

And, sure as you are born, the tide will change. Donald Trump knows it; the campaign press knows it; you know it. It always does, in every Republican nomination cycle, beaching the race-baiting nativist or apocalyptic culture warrior so that the candidates pre-approved for a higher grade of fake seriousness can receive it. This would be the fate of Donald Trump’s put-on candidacy even if intentionally causing it to happen, and then casting himself as the irascible truth-telling capitalist who tired of the dishonesty and pageantry of campaigning, were not just as attractive an option for Trump himself as winning the presidency.

In the meantime, while we wait for precisely the end of this branding exercise we all know is coming, we get this, from Daniel Strauss at Politico (where else?):

Trump, Republican consultant Ed Rollins said, has benefited from an “incredible voter disconnect” by the rest of the Republican primary field and now stands to carve off a large slice of conservative Palin followers.

“At this point in time, there’s a lot of people that still like her,” Rollins said. “There’s a significant tea party out there that she can tap into.”

Jesus fucking Christ. “Can Sarah Palin sell Donald Trump to ‘Joe Six-Pack’?” Analyzing the electoral prospects of a fake campaign by interrogating whether it can borrow credibility from the most ridiculous, least-credible media invention on earth, to win favor with a phony, ginned-up, profoundly insulting caricature of the regular people about whom not a one of the story’s principals has a single fucking iota of curiosity? It’s a question premised on and presented with compounded dishonesty and contempt. You couldn’t fool fucking hitchBOT with this shit. How fucking stupid does Daniel Strauss think you are?

Political coverage that ignores actual policy in favor of gauging public perception and election prospects often is called “horse race journalism” for treating politics as a pure competition, the only goal of which is electoral victory. That’s a pretty apt descriptor of how this stuff gets covered, except in one respect. The reporters who cover actual horse-racing have the dignity and professional pride not to grant phony import and stature to an early show that sprints out of the gate but has no chance of hanging around to decide the outcome. The reason is pretty simple: They value not making themselves look like craven fucking idiots. Maybe that’s why they cover farm animals running in a circle, rather than presidential campaigns.

Art by Jim Cooke


Contact the author at albert.burneko@deadspin.com or on Twitter @albertburneko.

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